Growth, Challenge and Hope in Chattanooga’s LGBTQ Community
Here we are, 2015, undoubtedly one of the most powerful and meaningful years in the history of human rights, especially for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) rights. On June 26, in a victory for gay people across the nation, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry in every state, joining 21 other countries, beginning with the Netherlands back in 2001.
And let’s just call it “marriage” now.
These recent years have seen big changes. Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner, who, while courageously and publicly sharing each step of her transition, has devoted herself to, among other causes, the health and safety of transgender youth.
And, joining almost three dozen other LGBT professional athletes, NFL player Michael Sam came out, and became engaged to his beau.
The Obama administration has overhauled federal policies for same-sex benefits, and recently nominated Eric Fanning to lead the Army, which would make him the first openly gay civilian secretary in the military services.
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton said, “Gay people belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, races and faiths. They are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes. They are our family, friends, and our neighbors. Being gay is a human reality.”
Pope Francis famously showed compassion toward the gay community, asking, “Who am I to judge?”
Yet, as we all know, the reality regarding LGBTQ rights is that celebratory steps forward toward freedom and equality are inevitably met with opposition, as progress in one sector of society gives rise to resistance in another.
Here in Chattanooga, in a move leaving many in the legal community scratching their heads, Hamilton County Judge Jeffrey Atherton refused to grant a straight couple a divorce because the U.S. Supreme Court allowed gay marriage. In an attention-grabbing display of what some would call grandstanding for his Tea Party beliefs, he denied several divorce petitions, citing the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage as essentially removing Tennesseans’ right to decide what constitutes marriage, and therefore what constitutes divorce.
The Washington Post called his tactic, “The judicial equivalent of a high school student tearing up his term paper because he got a bad grade.” AboveTheLaw.com condemned the judge’s homo-snide comment about our government’s “iron fist and limp wrist.”
And in a stunning example of blurring the lines between church and state, Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis refused to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because “it conflicts with her religious beliefs.” Fortunately the Kentucky governor didn’t support that position, and assured the public that “All [KY] marriage licenses will be recognized as valid.”
All this reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw recently proclaiming, “If homosexuals can’t get married because it goes against your religion, then you can’t have cookies because I’m on a diet.”
How can the legalization of gay marriage justifiably disrupt straight divorce proceedings? How can a clerk simply decide not do the job the taxpayers pay her to do? How does gay marriage threaten anything about heterosexual marriage? I asked friends of mine, a straight married couple, if gay marriage had interrupted, changed or threatened their union in any way. They looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “Of course not,” they replied. “Except that now our gay friends can finally have the same rights we have, which delights us!”
Having a gay child doesn’t mean you failed as a parent. Disowning your child means you failed as a parent.
I’ve been fortunate to travel the country on two book tours, and one of the true delights for me was speaking at PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meetings. Some small and struggling, some quite large and well-established, these gatherings help me stay in touch with what’s most challenging to parents when their son or daughter comes out as lesbian, gay, bi or trans. This international group was humbly started as a resource for support and education for parents trying to navigate the sometimes murky and troubling waters of such a family event, with the guidance of other parents who’ve learned to accept their adult children’s sexual orientation.
Many parents were accepting, loving and supportive from the get-go; many others had genuine motivation to learn more about “the gay thing.” But of course some were confused, hurt, angry and didn’t know how to cope. It felt to them like they didn’t know their child any more. Almost always, their biggest hurdle was their conservative theology. Our discussions would inevitably include, “Is being gay a choice?” (No); “Did they [the parents] do anything ‘wrong’ to cause it?” (No); and “How can they grow to accept their child’s orientation and, someday, spouse?”
I encouraged these folks to see that first of all, their child is the same person on Tuesday, after the big disclosure, that he or she was on Monday, before the big disclosure. What’s changed is the information the parents now know. Information, by the way, that is often gut-wrenching to disclose. When you realize the vast numbers of youth who are banished from their homes and families in the name of religious beliefs (and believe me, the young gay person is acutely aware that that same possibility exists for himself), then you begin to appreciate the amount of courage it takes for a person to come out to family.
Second, remember that what parents have really wanted for their children all along is happiness. The challenge they experience regarding the “same-sex relationship” occurs when they put all the emphasis on the “same-sex” part instead of on the “relationship” part. Parents want to see their children in loving, successful relationships. If they can begin by being supportive of that piece, then perhaps acceptance and understanding around sexual identity may follow.
If you think being gay is a choice, why don’t you try being gay for a while to simply see. Oh…you can’t?
New York City and San Francisco are our civil rights grandfathers. It was a fed-up drag queen at the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village bar, who threw the first fateful punch on the night of Judy Garland’s death in June of 1969. Judy was an icon. Community grief was palpable. And the police had organized yet another raid on gay bars in the city. Enough was enough. Police stormed in, batons swinging, and were met with an angry, grieving group. Thus began the “Stonewall riots” and the modern gay rights movement.
San Francisco saw the election of Harvey Milk, a visionary civil and human rights leader who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. His commitment to authenticity gave never-before-experienced hope to LGBT people everywhere at a time when the community was encountering widespread hostility and discrimination. His career was cut short when he was assassinated a year after taking office by fellow supervisor (and noted homophobe) Dan White (who also murdered Mayor George Moscone that same day). White was acquitted of murder charges and given a mild sentence for manslaughter, in what became known as the “Twinkie defense”—eating too much junk food that day. But Harvey Milk’s legacy survives.
I remember the 1980s in Los Angeles, when HIV/AIDS was in its early stages of both our collective consciousness, and what would become ongoing devastation. Legions of young men, creative and full of promise, were dying, and the world was topsy-turvy: Sons dying before parents. Medical science was confounded. Blame and judgment were rampant. Everyone was scared.
Our current generation wasn’t around for this part. They know HIV as a manageable illness. But for the first two decades or so, it most assuredly was not. As bereavement director for the nation’s first AIDS hospice, I regularly met with parents from near and far who, all at once, had to be told that their son was gay, ill, and dying.
Gay Pride was not born of a need to celebrate being gay, but from our right to exist without persecution. So instead of wondering why there isn’t a Straight Pride movement, be thankful you don’t need one.
In 1982 San Francisco, I saw my first Pride parade, filled with every eye-popping organization one could imagine, from “Dykes on Bikes” to the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.” Let me tell you, until you’ve seen dozens of topless lesbians on Harleys proudly leading a several-mile-long parade; or ten bearded roller-skaters wearing full Catholic nun garb, in choreographed formation, habits flowing…you just haven’t lived.
Fast forward to the present, when Chattanooga will add a parade of its own to this year’s Pride festivities. It will be the first such parade here in—what?—25 years. When I first moved here 10 years, ago I talked with a few of the local GLBT leaders and encouraged moving Pride from a tiny gathering in the far-off, wooded outskirts of town to front and center downtown Chattanooga (“Pride has to come out of the closet!”) where it thrived at Miller Plaza. And now, for the second year, Pride will be held on the riverfront in arguably one of the most scenic cities in America. I think Harvey would be proud.
So, yes, it’s 2015 and we’re seeing myriad human rights advances globally, nationally, and locally, despite the attempts of some to thwart the natural, inevitable progression of humankind…one global pandemic, countless decades of religious persecution, and a winning case for marriage equality later. You know, given our history, one testy judge is nothing.
I don’t know if we’ll have Harley-riding lesbians or roller-skating nuns, but I invite all of you—the LGBTQ community, allies, parents, friends, and the curious—to join in the fun, to learn more about gay rights struggles and successes, and about how, as a nation, a city, and a community, we’ve still got a long way to go. See you there.
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde
Say It Loud: I’m LGBT and Proud
October is Pride Month in Chattanooga, and this week’s Pride Week events are already underway! If you haven’t been attending, there’s still time to catch up with the remaining events before the big festival and parade on Sunday.
Thursday, Oct. 1: Community Conversation Night
7p.m., St. Mark’s Church, 701 Mississippi Ave.
Join members of the community to have a conversation about LGBTQ issues in Chattanooga and how we can respond.
Friday, Oct. 2: The Floor is YOURS and Kickoff Party
7:30p.m., Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave. and 10 p.m., Images Nightclub, 6005 Lee Hwy.
The Floor is YOURS at Barking Legs Theater will donate a portion of the proceeds to Chattanooga Pride’s Kids Zone. Then head over to Images Nightclub for drinks, dancing, and drag.
Saturday, Oct. 3: NDC Movie Night & Party Late with Pride
Sundown, Aretha Frankensteins, 518 Tremont St.; 8 p.m., The Big Chill & Grill, 103 Cherokee Blvd.; and 10 p.m., Alan Gold’s, 1100 McCallie Ave.
It’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” night at Aretha Frankensteins, complete with a costume contest and donation collections for NDC, PFLAG, and TVP. Move on to The Big Chill for food and drinks and later to Alan Gold’s for another fabulous drag show.
Sunday, Oct. 4: Pride Parade, Festival, & After Party
Noon, Riverfront Parkway and E. Aquarium Way; 1p.m., Ross’s Landing on Riverfront Parkway; 8 p.m, Chuck’s, 27 W. Main St.; 11p.m., Images, 6005 Lee Hwy.
Chattanooga’s first Pride Parade in 20 years starts at Riverfront Parkway and Aquarium Way and will travel down to Ross’s Landing for the Pride Festival. Afterwards, head to Chuck’s for hotdogs and drinks and then to Images for the final drag show of the week.
— Sam Hilling